Montage of Heck and Guns N' Roses

I saw "Montage of Heck," the documentary about Kurt Cobain, and for the most part I really liked it.  It is, at moments, devastating, although not so much because of Cobain but because he was once a child and we know how his life ended.  Show me anything about children these days and you've got me.

Being a parent is hard.

Anyway, one of the things that stood out to me was how often he and his wife, Courtney Love, mentioned Guns N' Roses.

In theory, some of that would have come from the urban legend that has become the confrontation between Cobain and Axl Rose at some MTV awards thing, but I realized that said confrontation involved Cobain jokingly (in a dick move, I have to say) asking Rose to be his daughter's god father, which meant he was a father by that point.  Yet he mentions Guns N' Roses before that.

So why?  Why are Guns N' Roses a big enough deal to get mentioned more than once?  He never even mentions any of the other Seattle bands more than once (if at all).

It reveals two things about Cobain.

The first, which is talked about in the documentary, is his ambition.  For all of Cobain's supposed slacker aesthetic, he was very ambitious.  While he never intended to be famous the way he was, he did want to succeed.  He wanted his band to do well.  He probably just wanted to be able to make a living making music.

But ambition has a way of moving the goal posts.  Truly ambitious people aren't satisfied with their initial goals.  And that's what makes the Guns N' Roses comments so interesting.

Nirvana marked the end of what we called "hair metal."  It was the end of all those cheesy 80s bands with no substance and rather bizarre style.  The music and the message mattered now.  The image did not.  I believe CC Deville, guitarist for Poison, actually answered the question "what happened?" regarding his band's decline in popularity with one word: "Nirvana."

Nirvana redefined popular rock music.  Hair bands were over, grunge had arrived.  But there was one band who was still topping the charts, and who were decidedly not grunge: Guns N' Roses.

It would be easy to make the case that these two bands represented two ends of the popular rock music spectrum.  Given Cobain's ambition (and Rose's), it's easy to see why they would dislike each other, although it is a little surprising that Cobain would have been so upfront about it.

But that last bit is informed by the second thing it tells me about Cobain, something that's actually only
touched on in the documentary a bit, which I think is a mistake.

Cobain represented a new type of masculinity.

Rose represented an old one.

Rose was (and probably still is), at the very least, a sexist homophobe.  He sang about women as objects and he derided men who didn't behave in a manner he viewed as masculine.  He was the worst part of those who have male genitalia and he was often glorified for it.

To Cobain, he would have been the enemy.  He was the old guard, the disgusting, horrible old guard that was digging in and refusing to budge as the new regime took hold, a new regime that wasn't hung up on outdated definitions of masculinity, that believed in equality.

Rose also seemed to live his life without thinking, something Cobain was probably at least a little envious of.  Even if Rose was a horrible person, there's something liberating in that, particularly for someone who gives a great deal of thought to every little thing.  I say this from experience.

They were opposite ends of the white, male, rock star spectrum, playing tug of war with pop culture.

And Rose won.

It's not that Cobain killed himself that proves Rose's victory, because Rose himself would more or less go into hiding and has barely been seen since (that's actually an interesting parallel that deserves more thought, the fact that, with Cobain dead, Rose basically fell off the face of the earth, as if he no longer needed to exist).  No, the proof is in the rock stars we got after that.  Even during the high point of the "alternative" period, who do you think someone like the lead singer of, say, Creed takes after more, Cobain or Rose?  And what did we get later on?  Nu Metal.  The pendulum was quickly pulled back where it was in the pre-Nirvana days.

I think we've seen some balance restored since then, thankfully, in part because of the impact Cobain had on youth culture.  I think the rock bands of today are formed by the Nirvana fans of the past.  And I think we're seeing them behave the way Cobain would have wanted, or at least in some watered down version.

Still, it's interesting to think of Cobain and Rose as the ying and yang of rock n' roll, and what that type of music meant to white dudes of the world.